U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller wants the cruise industry to clean up its act.
Appalled by the recent events aboard the Carnival Triumph cruise ship, which was crippled by an engine fire leaving 4,200 people stranded on board in the Gulf of Mexico for five days last month, Rockefeller, D-W.Va., believes the industry needs to do a better job regulating itself.
He also believes that Congress should act quickly to repeal tax provisions that allow cruise companies to keep ships registered in foreign ports, sheltering them from paying American corporate taxes.
"They're living off the taxpayer, not paying their fair share and not properly monitoring themselves," Rockefeller said during a phone interview last week.
"The tax they pay is 0.6 percent - that's the total tax that they pay," he said. "They make a lot of money, they don't pay taxes, they don't reimburse in any way all the agencies of the government - starting with the Coast Guard - that come to their rescue."
It's not the first time Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate's Commerce, Science and Transportation industry, has put the industry under the microscope.
After Carnivals Costa Concordia ran aground and capsized off the coast of Italy last January - which resulted in the death of 32 people - Rockefeller held an oversight hearing to examine deficiencies in the industry's compliance with safety, security and environmental standards and determine if those regulations sufficiently protect passengers and the environment.
He said the recent incident on board the Triumph was just the latest in a long string of events that show the industry isn't doing its job to safeguard its passengers
In the past five years, the U.S. Coast Guard has had to make 90 safety interventions involving Carnival ships. Three such incidents occurred within the last week.
The Coast Guard had to spend nearly $780,000 in responding just to incident on board the Triumph. And that financial cost pales in comparison to how that event affected the people on the ship.
"There was squalid feces and trash and junk and stuff sloshing all over," he said. "It was disgusting - disgusting."
Rockefeller said the Triumph incident serves as a cautionary tale for an industry that he believes doesn't go far enough to protect the safety of its passengers.
"You get one of these disasters and it really makes news," he said, "and I'm really glad about that because it gives people a sense of what they are getting into.
"It's gotten a lot of bad publicity - people throwing up, one of the cameras had people lying on the deck configured to real 'HELP' so if a plane was flying by they could come help," he said. "That's pretty sad."
Though he's not personally traveled on a Carnival cruise ship, Rockefeller he has seen the ships up close as they're out on the seas.
"I've been in the Bahamas and the Virgin Islands when one of these ships were in port," he said. "It's just a ludicrous sight.
"It's like the island is just this little speck buried under this gigantic white Carnival ship," he said. "There's nothing wrong with that, but it puts in perspective that they are in charge here. We are in awe of them; we gawk at them."
Rockefeller said that people also assume cruise companies take care of their ships, properly clean them, and perform necessary maintenance.
"I don't think they are," he said. "They certainly aren't when they get in trouble."
He said that while Carnival is not a monopoly, the company seems to have "monopoly power" once it gets passengers out to sea.
"They basically own the seas," Rockefeller said.
He said the only time cruise ships come under U.S. safety, environmental and spillage regulations is when they're sailing within three miles of the U.S. coastline.